Calgarian recounts half her life as sex worker
“I was two when it first started. I was in a car. I didn’t understand why there was blood beneath me. A man was there, on top of me. I was too young to understand. So I closed my eyes.”
At the age of two, Toni said, she was sexually assaulted in the back of a car. At that point, both her biological mother and father were absent from her life, so she went into the system.
She cycled in and out of foster homes around Calgary: transient places with foreign beds, strange places to consider home.
“I remember at one foster home I was in, I was so hungry that I was eating onions out of the garden,” Toni explains, as she shifts her hot teacup from one hand to the other.
“I also remember being taken downstairs because it was ‘nap time,’ and then the guy would diddle with me in the basement.”
Toni has asked that her last name not be used in this piece due to the negative stigma surrounding sex work.
At the age of eight Toni was adopted by a single mother. Two years later, she was un-adopted. She remembers struggling with the feeling of being unwanted and unloved.
By age 10, Toni was done with rejection. She ran away to Edmonton from the group home in Calgary she was in at the time.
That’s when he found her. He gave her a place to belong.
“At the time I was staying with a bunch of these guys, and this guy comes and slaps me,” she says. “And I don’t know if this was a setup, but I started crying and that’s when my [future] pimp came along and he said, ‘Hey, you don’t need to deal with this, I can take care of you’.
“I was only 12.”
They say no girl ever dreams about being a prostitute, but sometimes it’s a choice that makes a lot of sense.
“He was my employer,” Toni explains. “He showed me how to be safe, and how to make a guy get off faster.”
Prostitution is legal in Canada. However, all activities surrounding prostitution are illegal. These include: communicating in a public place, owning a common bawdy house, transporting or directing any person to a common bawdy house, living off the avails of prostitution, and purchasing sexual services from a minor.
There are many forms of prostitution, but street level is the most visible form of sex-trade activity.
In reality, street-level prostitution is only five to 20 per cent of all prostitution activity. However, this is the area law enforcement focus on the most.
In a government report about prostitution in Canada, research suggests that a majority of women engaged in prostitution begin between the ages of 16 and 20. Most of these youth involved in prostitution are often runaways who sell sex for survival.
As Toni sits back in her chair, pausing for a moment in the midst of her story, the room waits in silence. Her voice is all that fills the space — memory after memory vividly painted, leaving impressions on all who listened.
The room is scattered with individuals from all different walks of life. There are nurses, outreach workers, activists, educators. Some have memories of their own experience with addictions and living on the streets, while others can’t fathom the life Toni shares. Through her lips comes an honest truth: as a society we all share a skewed view of a prostitute.
“Every woman has a story, and I think the perception that ‘oh, there’s another ho or drug addict’ is common,” Toni says, as she looks around the room.
The workshop is held at the Calgary Cares Centre, home to the SHIFT program. SHIFT offers support to adults involved in sex work. It uses a harm reduction and rights-based approach. This approach is based on understanding the potential dangers and risks involved in sex work, and meets individuals’ needs by supporting them.
Catherine van der Linden, a team leader at SHIFT Calgary, was one of the individuals who led the workshop, Shifting Perspectives, which is held once a month. The workshop is designed to help people better understand sex work and take away some of the stigma and preconceptions individuals have towards sex workers.
“I find it really interesting because we always ask the question to people who are in sex work, why are you are sex worker? And it implies that there are a lot of judgements around people involved in sex work,” van der Linden says. “Any person who goes into any job has their own reasons for it, and sex work would be the same.”
“What makes me sick is that people think that these women on the streets are disposable, it doesn’t matter if they’re killed or not and maybe even better if they are because then they’d be off the streets.”
In an effort to clearly define the scope of sexual exchange and the amount of choice involved at each stage, the B.C. Coalition of Experiential Communities (BCCEC) created the continuum of sexual exchange.
This continuum puts sex work under the section of individual choice and control, arguing that there is choice in sex work. However, once the individual’s choices become limited and the amount of control is reduced, the individual is no longer engaged in sex work.
“Sex work is more about power and control, because a sex worker isn’t rented or bought,” says van der Linden. “It’s like any profession, when you say, these are the things I’m willing to do.”
Although there is choice, van der Linden recognizes that there are people who could be forced into prostitution. In this case, it would fall under sex trafficking.
Sex trafficking would require a process, a method and a goal. Individuals who are trafficked can be recruited, threatened and coerced into prostitution as one scenario.
“There are people who are forced to do this work, and that’s sex trafficking,” says Kimberly Williams, a women’s studies professor at Mount Royal University. “But then there are people who could be ‘forced’ to do this type of work out of economic necessity, but is that really being forced or is that making a choice because your choices are limited?”
In 2008, Calgary saw 45 children receiving compulsory care through the Protection of Sexually Exploited Children Act (PSECA), legislation that recognizes children who are engaging or attempting to engage in prostitution are victims of sexual abuse and exploitation.
In an environmental scan sponsored by the Calgary Network on Prostitution, research suggests that factors such as poverty, financial dependence, unemployment, drug addiction and previous sexual and physical abuse have been linked to an individual’s involvement in the sex trade.
The document also suggests that 82 per cent of females and 100 per cent of males had a history of sexual abuse prior to the street.
Sexual abuse can be a factor that leads people to choose sex work. However, it is not always a factor for every individual choosing to become a sex worker.
Not just a statistic
Although Toni entered the sex trade as a child, she still insists on the autonomy of choice.
Now as she sits at her kitchen table, she recounts her past with a deep understanding of those memories. Her dark hair that was once done up in tight braids now hung loose around her olive skin: her cheeks lightened and her spirit free.
“I guess for me I had made a lot of wrong choices, but I had a choice, I could have stayed in social services,” she shrugs. “Everybody has a choice. Maybe mine wasn’t an educated choice, but it was still my choice none the matter.”
In the next few years of her adolescence after meeting her pimp, Toni survived off of prostitution. It was the life she knew, it was the profession she had.
At first she was considered a “high-end” prostitute. She made the big bucks.
Then her pimp began to sell cocaine. That was when Toni was introduced to the drug.
“Usually people will say street level prostitution is more dangerous,” says van der Linden. “There’s no shelter, no access to a bathroom or food, so all those things already add challenges. But it’s also usually dark, not in the best neighbourhood. You’re more easily exposed to drugs, so there’s vulnerability there.”
Toni became heavily addicted to cocaine. She endured a few abusive relationships, and her self-worth began to diminish.
“I was an addicted prostitute. It doesn’t mean that I was a bad person, I just made poor choices in my life because of the circumstances that had been handed to me, and I handled it the best way I could with the tools that I had,” she says.
As the sky began to dim outside, Toni continued to share her story. At some points she laughed, her laughter filling the space with a sense of warmth. Her experiences colour her personality, she is who she is today because of those realities.
Although she has come to terms with her past, she still feels the stigma she experienced as a prostitute is something that she did not deserve.
“What makes me sick is that people think that these women on the streets are disposable, it doesn’t matter if they’re killed or not and maybe even better if they are because then they’d be off the streets,” explains Toni. “We’re not just another statistic or number.”
According to the environmental scan, one of three charges in Calgary involving prostitution is laid against sex trade workers, and the other two of three charges are laid against the “Johns,” those paying the sex workers for their service.
In 2007, there were 145 communication charges laid, with an estimated 35 to 40 charges laid against sex-trade workers.
Toni wonders if these charges against prostitutes are effective.
Williams argues that as a society we need to be more attentive to the choices people make.
“I have not been in a situation where I had to choose sex work, but if you put yourself in that position, you can start to think about why someone would choose it,” says Williams.
A seed of hope
For Toni, it was someone with that kind of mindset that would change her life.
By the age of 22, Toni was heavily addicted and pregnant. That’s when she was introduced to an outreach worker at the Kindred House in Edmonton. Up until then Toni was unaware of all the agencies and services that were available to her.
Toni recalls this woman to be someone who went the extra step for her. She is still trying to locate this outreach worker today.
“She was an awesome woman,” recalled Toni. “She didn’t have that condescending look in her eye like ‘Oh, you’re addicted and you’re pregnant, how disgusting is that.’ And I say there is a choice, but at that point in my life I was quite ashamed of myself for what I was doing.”
She admitted that she didn’t turn her life around at this point, but it was the outreach worker who planted a seed in her and gave her hope.
It would be five or so years later that she would leave her work as a prostitute, and quit cocaine cold turkey. But her road to recovery all started because that one woman saw something in her.
“Actually its funny, I met the man I am in love with today on the street corner. He asked me where to score dope,” Toni laughs. “We were addicted together, and we lost everything together. And then one day he went one way and I went the other, I wasn’t ready to leave yet. But he waited for me.”
When Toni finally was ready to quit cocaine, he came and picked her up and took care of her all the while she fought with the addiction.
“Everybody has a choice. Maybe mine wasn’t an educated choice, but it was still my choice none the matter.”
It has been four years since Toni has touched cocaine. She is happily in a relationship and has regained custody of her daughter.
Now she chuckles at her “old man” who is sitting in the living room watching television. She looks over to him, and her eyes light up behind her glasses.
“He loved me when I didn’t know what love was really, and he showed me,” Toni recalls. “I remember he took me out when I was about a month straight, and I was really dying to go out and get some dope, and he went and took me for my first pedicure,” — she chuckles — “and he gave me so much help that I started loving myself somewhere along the way.”
For others, exiting the life of street prostitution can be difficult. Services like SHIFT and Servants Anonymous are in place to help individuals to exit, if that’s what they want.
“A lot of women coming out of this can’t get a job,” Toni says. “You come to the other side and you’ve already had 36 years of people looking down on you, so you have a negative outlook on people.”
Other barriers for sex workers who are choosing to exit include: a lack of housing and basic needs; inability to access financial support, education and employment; the need for counselling and mental health support; addictions awareness and treatment and support programs.
In the integrated service model for sex-trade worker response, put out by the Calgary Network on Prostitution, the earliest stage is prevention.
The organization promotes the idea that public awareness of the issues that place people at risk for sexual exploitation can shift people’s perspectives “to understand that sex trade workers don’t choose to experience violence and abuse, and have a right to be safe, treated with respect and supported through the long term difficult process of making the choice to exit.”
Through this education, individuals can learn choice doesn’t only fall into the hands of individuals who chose to engage in sex work. Choice is in the way we view people, in the way we treat them.
Choice is in the hands of everybody, to choose not to stigmatize individuals based on their actions.
“Think of that girl [on the streets] as your daughter,” Toni says. “Think of that girl as your sister, think of that somebody as a woman.”